Quit worrying about "urban sprawl" (and start worrying about federal stewardship)

One of the green movement’s great gripes with humanity is that people just take up too much darn room, and ergo put a lot of ecological stress on the land on which they live. The ever-sprouting world population, they argue, isn’t sustainable, as we’ll eventually run out of space to put people.

A new graphic from Environmental Trends, however, aptly demonstrates how unfounded these fears are:

When speaking to audiences on the subject of the environment, I’m often confronted with people who express concerns about “urban sprawl,” and “over-development.” And polls suggest such concerns are widespread: In a March 2011, Gallup poll, 57% of people worried a great deal/fair amount about “urban sprawl and loss of open space;” and 42% of people said they worried “not much/not at all” about the same issue.

With so many people worried, the pie chart, below, offers some interesting context. Note that only about 3 percent of the US is urbanized. 56 percent is forest and pasture. The second chart below, shows the trends in land use over time.

As you can see, there’s no shortage of wide open spaces in these here United States, and over time the area of special use areas — parks, conservation areas, etcetera — has only expanded. (Funnily enough, despite the USA’s growing population, agricultural land usage has declined over time — i.e., we’re able to produce higher yields off of less land. Yay, efficiency and innovation!)

So, here’s the real problem with all of those wide open spaces: The federal government owns and manages a full third of the United States’ surface area. The Department of Interior entities responsible for stewarding said land, including the NPS, the BLM, and the Forest Service, can all boast of cringe-worthy backlogs of deferred maintenance in the billions of dollars. Deferred maintenance usually amounts to some form of environmental degradation — either through a lack of adequate resources or flat-out stupid policies, the federal government just can’t keep up with all of the individual demands of America’s treasured natural assets.

While greenies are often convinced that big government is always the answer to ensuring environmental quality, the inefficiencies and poorly-conceived policies of government stewardship are too frequently the environment’s detractors.

Here’s just one epic-fail example: The feds often prohibit logging, grazing, and other thinning activities on its forest lands, ostensibly to protect the endangered spotted owl. The result is unhealthy forests with much higher tree and undergrowth densities than there should be, and in the already arid western states, this both puts a stress on the water supply and creates veritable tinderboxes just waiting to explode into catastrophic wildfires. (Meanwhile, the federal government is also busily engaged in subsidizing windmills, which kill birds — like spotted owls. …Anyone? Anyone?)